250 canines are taking over western Wyoming’s snowy mountain terrain this week. The 28th annual Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race recently kicked off in Jackson.
On Friday evening, the town square was filled with the sound of barks, howls and even moos from the dogs.
“Like humans they have different voices,” Anny Malo said in front of her sled, surrounded by dogs going wild with excitement.
Malo is a biologist from Quebec, Canada and has been racing for 30 years. She is the musher, meaning she drives the sled for one of 24 teams from around the world competing. And she drove over the border with about two dozen short-haired dogs.
“There are so many different breeds,” Malo said. “When we went to Alaska, they were calling that breed of dog Alaskan Husky, but even then they had Greyhound [in them] — Saluki, German Shorthaired Pointer. They’re kind of mixed, but they’re bred to go fast and long.”
Leaders of the pack
Dan Carter has competed in Stage Stop six times. He’s now the race director and said he has fond memories of hitting the trails with his friends.
“One of my top leaders was a dog named Horse,” Carter said. “She was from the farm litter. She had a brother named Goat. Sister named Cow. Another sister named Chicken. And a Brother named Rooster.”
Alix Crittenden is leading the sole Wyoming team this year. Originally from North Carolina, she said she sort of fell into dog sled racing after moving west because she needed a winter job and never turned back.
“You can’t get away from it,” Crittenden said. “You fall in love with the dogs, fall in love with the people, fall in love with the sport. The hard work of it all.”
Five to 10 dogs at a time carry a sled about 30 to 35 miles a day. The dogs get excited to carry the sled before the race, but even though they appear to love the activity, they can get distracted during the race and the musher helps keep them on track.
“I whistle,” Crittenden said. “I don’t do much yelling at all, actually. I try to be really quiet. You don’t want to drive them crazy. It’s kind of like with kids if you yell at them all the time. Then when you really need to use it, it doesn’t work. So with the dogs we try to be quiet and let them do their job.”
Teams may travel with 20 or 30 dogs, but just a few rise to be pack leaders.
“There’s Hodges and Ada and Juniper and Leah, so those are three girls and one big boy,” Crittenden said. “Keep an eye out for Hodges. So he’s kind of a cool looking dog. He’s crazy, man he just loves to run.”
One to watch
Malo, the Quebec musher, said her kids are helping look after 30 more dogs back in Canada while she races. She is also one to watch this year as she’s made history winning Stage Stop the most times in a row and is going for her fifth.
But her previous pack leader, John Deere, is sitting this race out.
“John Deere is already famous because he did the Wyoming [Stage Stop] four times,” Malo said. “He has won this race four times. But he’s seven this year and he’s gonna stay in the truck. So it’s really heartbreaking for me because he’s getting older and he’s on the other side of the hill. But he’s still there, and I like to have him here because he’s got a contagious spirit so it’s good for the other dogs.”
As night falls, Malo and her dogs are the first ones to make their way through town to the starting line. The dogs howl, moo and jump with excitement as they get ready to race.
But when it’s time to run, they all go quiet — eyes on the prize: $165,000, which is a lot of dog treats.
As of Monday, Jan. 30, at Stage Two in Lander, Wyoming, Malo and Crittenden are in first and second place, respectively.
Due to cold temperatures the Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race has adjusted its daily plan.
The remaining daily race schedule is as follows:
Jan. 31 – Stage Four – Big Piney / Marbleton, Wyoming
Feb. 1 – Stage Five – Kemmerer, Wyoming
Feb. 2 – Stage Three (make up) Pinedale, Wyoming
Feb. 3 – Stage Six – Alpine, Wyoming
Feb. 4 – Stage Seven & Final Banquet – Driggs, Idaho
Videos can be found on the race’s YouTube page.